At the end of the film “Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger—part-man, part-machine—is finally dying after being crushed, boiled and baked. Stripped right down to his metal skeleton he utters his last words—”I’ll be back!”
Schwarzenegger was the bad guy, but it’s the same for the good guys. At the end of another film—”Aliens 3″—the anguished hero, Ripley, gives her life to finally rid the universe of an awful alien creature. She is gone for good—or at least she was, for death is no obstacle when Hollywood recognises a cash cow, so back from the grave Ripley came—half alien herself—in a fourth film: Alien Resurrection.
Resurrection is very popular these days. There’s always the possibility of a sequel (or two) to milk some more cash from the movie-going public. Well, it may be a popular theme but it’s not the way to look at what we celebrate here this Easter morning. This is not the sequel. The Resurrection of Jesus is not a repeat performance of his life. This is not “The Nazarene Strikes Back” nor is it “Son of Son of God.” For one thing, sequels are never as good as the original —the hero returns and does all the same things over again with not one element of unpredictability. What we celebrate here is altogether unpredictable: a new life has been born.
But the birth wasn’t easy. If you listen to Mary’s story today you see how difficult. You realise how exhausted she must have been. And, if we ourselves have entered into the story, as we’ve retold it together in our three days of prayer, we will probably feel just as drained. For Mary, and for us, it has been a succession of intense feelings: a last and disturbing meal with a dear but doomed friend, betrayal and arrest, the waiting, the watching, the suffering, the dying, and then yet more waiting by his dead body in the tomb. And now it is all over, all done, all finished, Mary of Magdala is exhausted and distraught. And now, at the open tomb, her weeping is even more desperate than before because it seems they have taken away even the corpse and left her nothing to cling to, or mourn over.
If we have travelled with Mary these days, we have been mourning too—grieving for Jesus but also grieving for all his death evokes in us, all that seems dead in our own lives, all the failed hopes, the lost opportunities and dying dreams. We carry our own tomb with us—within us—and we don’t know why it is empty.
Then the Easter vigil comes and, overnight, darkness is transformed into light and death becomes life. Suddenly he who was dead is not dead, but alive. But, if we have any heart at all that good news is hard news. It takes time to absorb. It can’t just happen with the lighting of a candle. So there Mary is, bewildered, hanging around the tomb, when these two irritating angels say to her “Woman, why are you weeping?” which is a stupid question. Because, of course she’s weeping! Jesus might have moved from death to life but, as yet, Mary hasn’t. It takes time to grieve and time to accept that life is alive. Mary has to be coaxed out of her own tomb. She hears another voice ask the question: “Woman, why are you weeping?” and she doesn’t recognise it—yet. So she tells her story again, cradling the familiar hurt of it. Until that voice, his voice, speaks her name and lets her unclench her fingers from her burden of death, to receive again the gift of herself, tenderly given, and with it a mission, a call, to be an apostle to the apostles, to touch them too with life.
Jesus, the one death could not hold, is back—not to destroy his enemies but to console his friends. We will see this pattern over and over again in the next days and weeks: Jesus comes to meet friends who are hurting, and to do for them exactly what they need to bring them back to life. To the frightened disciples in the upper room he brings Peace; to the couple fleeing to Emmaus, hope; to the friend who cannot believe, faith; and, here, he pours out comfort for the comfortless Mary. Jesus comes as a friend to bring a friend back to life.
Coming back to life takes time, which is why the Church gives us time. The Church counts this whole coming week as one day—Easter day. And after it forty more days of Easter—a whole Lent’s worth—to unwind the way to Calvary and slowly get the message that Jesus is not dead and neither are we.
It may have happened already—it may take some time—but, however it happens, this Easter Jesus will come to each of us as the friend he is, to console us, to share with us his own joy. He knows what stands in the way of our joy and he knows how to get round it. No need is too big for him—or too small—in fact, the Risen Jesus has nothing else to do! Every single Resurrection story we have is a story of consolation—there is not a one of judgement or revenge—not a one. Jesus lives that we might live. And we, as we are brought to joy by his joy, have nothing else to do but befriend the world, and, through our care and consolation, help it out of the tomb.
April 30th, 2000
I think he came back to us …out of embarrassment or a nagging need. Back to Bethany and Martha and Lazarus and me—looking to explain or be forgiven or something—at least at first. After opening the tomb and giving back our brother and then running off like that leaving us no room for thanks, no room for gratitude, no time to ask him what he’d done or what it might cost.
No, just the turmoil and the disbelief and the laughing and the crying. And Martha dancing for joy, and me singing inside, and Lazarus—Lazarus dazed, surrounded by friends afraid to touch and then unable to stop touching, checking their unbelieving eyes. Even one or two less friendly eyes troubled, angry. I can remember it all and remember nothing—like a dream. I didn’t even see Jesus go, him and his companions. Too wrapped up in all the jubilation I was.
But what do you do when it’s over? When the crowd’s gone, picked you clean, and the three of you are, inexplicably, there. Sitting. Wondering. All the aching questions unasked or asked and unanswered.
It seems we weren’t the only ones wondering what it all meant since the passing days saw a price slapped on Jesus’s head. And lies spread. And threats too. Wouldn’t you think they all would be happy for us? Wouldn’t you expect that and not the whispers that a living Lazarus was an embarrassment—and better off dead. And through it all no sign of Jesus—not to explain, nor promise, nor make it all make sense.
With Passover so close the Holy City was packed and alive with rumour. Jesus was going to march on Jerusalem. Jesus was going to destroy the Temple. Jesus was going to show the Romans. Who could stop him now—with the power of life and death his to command? Fools!
Though we wondered too. Was he going to come? Would he risk it? How could he? How could he not?
Then suddenly there he was. At the gate. Our gate. To explain. To promise. To make it make sense. So I hoped.
This he said: “I’m sorry.”
“We were wondering if you’d come? Hoping! Wondering if you’d risk Passover. Will you?”
“I do not know.” And he said little else. Him the great talker, silent, brooding. John told us he’d been like this since the tomb. Moody. Unnaturally quiet. Hiding in the back of beyond, staring out into the desert. As if waiting for something. Turning aside their concern with a distracted shrug. Till the twelve of them thought it was all over. And argued among themselves about what they would do. Go back north? Or walk into likely death at his side?
Then he ups and tells them he must see his friends and here we all are. Around the table. Eating, drinking, trying to ignore his mood. The guys working hard at enjoying Martha’s feast—laughing, fooling—but, I could see, glancing over at him all the time. Him alone in all the hubbub. They all kept their distance. Confused. Afraid to touch. Embarrassed.
I watched him. I’ve been able to read him since first we met. And right now, fear in his eyes. A need not to be alone. To have someone promise to stay by him. Just like Lazarus’s look when death was crawling close. But mixed in him with the horror of choice—stay or go up to him and no other. I could see him searching for his way out. Finding none. And searching again.
It was just then I heard the voice in my heart say: “It’s time.” It was time. He might not know it yet. But I did. I stood and fetched the oil of nard my inner voice had had me save all these years for him. I prayed. I wrapped a towel around my waist. Unbound my hair. And, as the room hushed, knelt before him. Held his eyes, steady, like. Touched his aching feet. “Do you know what I’m going to do for you?” Slowly he nodded.
I took the flask of oil, gave God thanks and praise, broke the seal, and poured the perfume to anoint him for his destiny. And as his tears began to flow I made my promise. “Whatever happens this week, my love, you will not be alone.”
April 24th, 2000
I remember when my father died 20-odd years ago that the hardest part of going on living was the problem other people had knowing what to say to us—my mother and brother and me. Friends and family want to comfort you but don’t quite know how to do it. And I don’t think I was very willing to be comforted back then—I didn’t make it easy for them—but I suspect there is no easy way of being with someone in their grief.
I did learn back then one really bad way of offering support. So many people said, in one way or another, “don’t be sad, it’s God’s will.” That made me so angry then and makes me even angrier now when I hear similar advice. Twenty years ago I guess I got riled up because I didn’t want easy answers—now I hate it because I know it’s not fair to God. It makes God sound like he doesn’t care or even prefers people to be dead than alive, loves death more than life, but if today’s gospel shows anything it shows how much God loves life and is heart-broken by death.
In the middle of all the magic and the miracle there’s a very human story—a buried body, grieving sisters, confused disciples—and above all a Jesus who is full of feeling. He might be saying grand and mysterious things and he might be doing the impossible but in the centre of it all he is showing us just how God faces death—like a friend torn apart by it all. As the story starts and Jesus is at a distance he manages to have his own theories about why God lets people die before their time but as he draws near, draws near to grief, draws near to loss, he is drawn near to the heart of the matter. When broken-hearted Martha meets him on the road and tells him off for letting Lazarus down into death Jesus tries to comfort her with words. But then as the weeping Mary pours out her disappointment words fail him and Jesus starts to get really upset. But its only when he see the tomb and realises that here is his friend dead and gone that he loses it. Tears pour down his cheeks. No more room for soothing words. He cries. He cries and he prays. And he calls Lazarus out of the tomb and into new life.
Out of death and into life. In a way that’s the whole of the Christian story. Our Elect are with us today and that’s why we use this gospel. It holds the promise for them. At the Easter Vigil when they are baptized they will step out of death and into life. That’s an awesome thing to promise them. New life. How can we give them that? Well, Thank God we don’t have to make good on the promise ourselves—Jesus is the one who has called them and will call to them that night and say “Come out! Come out of the tomb.” But the work isn’t all God’s—we have a responsibility as well. Poor Lazarus staggers out of the tomb all tied up in grave clothes and Jesus tells the onlookers to unbind him and let him go. We have that job for our Elect. As a community we can either let them live or conspire to keep them bound up in death. So how do we do that—unbind our friends and let them live? Two ways … at least.
First of all we have to be able to. If we ourselves are all tangled up in our own grave clothes how can we help anyone else to be free? As we walk alongside our friends into Holy Week and towards baptism we need to let ourselves be brought to life too. To take a good look at what has still got us tangled up in death and ask the God who loves life to set us free once again. Maybe our Reconciliation service on Wednesday is a good way to do that.
But apart from being able to help our Elect receive new life we have to want to. Think how much better the world would be—heck think how much better our families would be—if we did even some of the good things we each have the power and ability to do but fail to do because we can’t be bothered or don’t care enough. How does Jesus find the power to raise Lazarus from the dead? I believe he finds it in his gut when it is twisted up in compassion and in his tears when he can’t hold them back. Jesus cared about Lazarus. Loved him. Wanted him to be alive. Hated his death. And took the risk to weep and took the risk to pray and took the risk to call him to life. Do we care that much about life? Do we care that much about our friends here today? Maybe we need to pray to care that much. I hope we can pray for that gift. But it’s a risky gift.
Jesus gives Lazarus his life back but at a terrible price. John’s gospel makes it really clear that raising Lazarus was the last straw for the authorities. After this act of love Jesus has a price on his head, he’s a hunted man, an outlaw. He gave Lazarus his life and will end up giving up his own. That’s how much Jesus cared about Lazarus. He was willing to die for Lazarus’s life. In a way Jesus has made that same bargain for each of us—given his life so that we might have ours—and done it for the same reason. He loves us so much that he can’t stand to see us dead. Our challenge—all of us—is to live our new life in the light of that enormous and terrible gift.
April 9th, 2000